Click here to [close]

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Curtis Hasselbring and the New Mellow Edwards – Number Stations (Cuneiform Records, 2013) **** ¾

By Monique Avakian


This album is coming through like Joe Strummer channeling the all of Europe via Rune inside a receiver hidden within Area 54 inside an America well-acquainted with Oliver North baking cakes for Ayn Rynd’s architect who to this day remains talking, even if you are unaware of that.

: i. e . ;

we’ve got some “hypothetical” (**) interpretations of secret codes (musical and otherwise) via:
* scores derived from the metaphor and magic of song titles
  * number-puzzles translated through improvised music
  * thoughtful compositional bookending
  * authentic revealing of Dolphy-esque influences
  * employment of choice riff ideas from multiple genres
  * unusual orchestration (including two drummers and vibes!)
  * a repetitive motif of Morse Code bits that are somehow never repetitive
  * collaged images blending old and new

The result? A thoughtful and engaging treat so multi-layered you might miss all the nuance if you are a gobbler.

Take your time with the New Mellow Edwards septet and savor all the judicious and auspicious licks offered so generously to you by this stellar cast of musicians:  Curtis Hasselbring (trombone, guitar), Mary Halvorson (guitar), Chris Speed (tenor saxophone, clarinet), Matt Moran (vibraphone, marimba), Trevor Dunn (acoustic and electric bass), Ches Smith (drums, marimba), Satoshi Takeishi (drums, percussion).

Three (of Many, Many) Highlights:

Vibes: Within this context, it would be so easy to err on the side of over-doing it and end up sounding like a derivative sound track from BeWitched. Matt Moran not only avoids all the sonic traps laid out by this instrument, but wisely and adventurously takes us further into the eloquent beauty that is the future of this too-often side-lined instrument. If you like vibes, you will get excited by this development. If you hate vibes, you will be encouraged by this development. Moran brings a wealth of tradition into his uniquely modern point of view. His soloing choices and chord voicings reveal a comprehensively hued and shaded palette, an open heart, a sense of humor and a well-developed technical skill. (Of special interest: “It’s Not a Bunny,” “Tux is Traitor,” “Stereo Jack’s Bluegrass J’s”).

While Hasselbring offers rhythmic support via guitar on Tracks 1 and 4, it is Halvorson at the helm. As usual, she takes care to provide thoughtful and inventive choices at opportune moments. One of the finest examples begins at 6:40 on “It’s Not a Bunny,” where she seamlessly brings the band from one dimension into the next with a subtle wave of arpeggios. As for the topic of risk and restraint, Halvorson exemplifies a Protean balance that is as mind-blowing as it is consistent. Somehow, she’s able to walk like a giant without stomping on anyone. In terms of sonic inventiveness, Halvorson continues here to blaze her trail with unique bendy notes and wavy chordal splicing. Hers is a path that at times might be easy to miss. Maybe she doesn’t want you to find it, if you’re not really ready.

The listener is brought into a realm of depth via cross-genre adventurousness framed by Hasselbring’s conceptual Zeitgeist for this project (funded in part by Chamber Music America's 2010 New Jazz Works Program/Doris Duke Charitable Foundation). Number Stations is based around espionage: specifically, secret codes broadcast by governments to agents around the world via shortwave radio. These messages (denied by governments as real) consist of 5 digit number series streams accompanied by female or children’s voices and musical riffs. Hasselbring wryly extends this method of communication to his band, boldly challenging members to form and break alliances based on numerical ideas and metaphorical instructions. The listening experience is enhanced with this arty, witty nod to Spy v. Spy cartoons, chase scenes from Lancelot Link and choice memories of victorious afternoons playing Stratego with disgruntled siblings. Note also Steven Erdman’s CD-insert collages as his intriguing images round out this frame of reference.

Stand-Out Tunes:
1) A song called: “37 degrees by 56 feet by 39 inches by 111 degrees 32 feet.” Part of the code for me involves the slant quoting of “Baby Love” a la 1964, as well as the embedded magic of the song title, which must have been crafted by the superior mind of a 10 year old running free in the woods with friends disguised as rogues on a long, hot summer day. This tune sticks with you!

2) “Make Anchor Babies”: Every player stands out on here. The tune takes off during the first half into a Latin free sailing vibe, and it’s a sunny day, and you’re driving along a mountain curve in your little red convertible, scarf flying, all too soon plunging over the cliff! And then, the band uses the repeated motif of the two-note interval pivot to get us somehow into the outer space feel of a foggy fjord, and now you are on a small motor boat of some kind, worrying about the gas gage, searching carefully for clues. The electronic sound-play here is evocative and emotive, with a mysterious ending.

3) “It’s Not a Bunny”: Another tune where all players stand out. The form is created by a bookending of the melody hook, making a satisfying sandwich that telescopes out into the most outrageous of wildly concocted funky, jazzy, free-form Scooby-Snacks before upending, accordion-like, into your open mouth and down through your gullet with a snap of one note on the woodblock. Zoinks!

Curtis Hasselbring's New Mellow Edwards, 2012 NYC Winter Jazz Fest:


Anonymous said...

At first i thought "Oh no, not another trcksy review on 'Free Jazz'" (seems to be a developing trend?) then I read more closely and it's a very enjoyable and intriguing review of what sounds like an interesting release. So not style over content at all. Thanks for a great review!

Kenny said...

Fantastic album/review!!!

Anonymous said...

What a great review! A pleasure to read.